OREM, Utah — With fall classes weeks away, a group of four got together at Utah Valley University in preparation for the upcoming semester.
The discussion centered around what Marquita Shantell Valdez is currently studying: Criminal justice.
"Re-entry, recidivism, all of that is a community problem," Valdez said.
She's passionate about the topic of incarceration and recidivism, as well as addiction.
"Addiction is only a small piece of the puzzle," Valdez said, looking at the group. "Addiction is a symptom of a bigger disease."
Not only is Valdez studying the court system, but she also wants to reform it. Her goal is to change expungement laws.
People convicted of felony crimes face barriers for the rest of their lives, Valdez indicated. It affects their ability to get a job, and a place to live. It's always on their record.
She talked about how there's often no help for those released from incarceration to navigate the world. It can lead to the person falling back into what got them in trouble in the first place.
Valdez has seen it.
"Our history as a family is prison," she said, describing her upbringing to the woman and two men sitting around her. "We were raised to go to prison."
Valdez has also lived it.
She was 18 the first time she went to prison.
"Most of my crimes were drug-related, forgeries, thefts, firearms," Valdez listed off. She also used drugs. "Really, my addiction was around not just drugs, but relationships."
A couple of years ago, after spending most of her children's lives in and out of state and federal prisons in Arizona and Utah, she decided it was time for a change.
Valdez said her then-16-year-old daughter told Valdez to wait for her the next time she went to prison. That was a turning point for Valdez.
She didn't want her daughter to head down the same path. Valdez took a leap of faith and enrolled at Utah Valley University to get a college education.
While Valdez started to succeed in sobriety, independence and raising her children, she explained how she watched many of her friends continue to go through the revolving door of the prison system.
One day, her homework assignment led to the idea for a nonprofit to help convicted felons and people battling addiction enroll in college just like she did.
Valdez created Breaking Barriers Utah.
"Breaking Barriers Utah is a way to help people really be everything that they wanted to be, but never had the opportunity to," she said.
People like Jami Powell, Vince Lane, and Dustin Smith, who showed up Tuesday to talk to Valdez. Each has their own stories, similar to what she's been through.
"I decided to get into a high-speed chase in Roy, and crashed the car, and two people-- one of them got hurt," Smith recounted, as he looked at a "wanted" poster on his phone from 2018 that was plastered all over the news with his mugshot. "And so, you know I ended up going to prison for this."
Smith said he's been to prison five times, and at one point was using meth. He lost his wife and kids because of it.
He said he never thought he would amount to anything. But then he met Valdez and heard about Breaking Barriers Utah.
Now Smith has his first college classes to look forward to.
"I think it’s probably one of the most motivating things I have ever had, like to actually be able to go to school and do something with my life," he said, with a smile.
Instead of prison, Smith sees possibility.
"I get to actually be part of something greater," he said. "I get to put myself up here, instead of having myself down here, you know."
Valdez said 12 people have enrolled in fall classes at UVU through Breaking Barriers Utah. Another 120 want to sign up, but she said those people never learned to read. Many dropped out of school before high school.
She's now spearheading a high school preparatory program, to help people get to a high school level so they can work toward their GED.
Valdez said she and her daughter are also working on programs for youth.
As Valdez helps people break barriers, her hope is to help them build better lives.
"It’s a community of people trying to change public perception," she said. "We can build a future that is sustainable... and self-sufficient."